Fake News, Real Panic
Tamil Nadu is home to over 10 lakh migrant workers
Even as the grand celebrations for Tamil Nadu Chief Minister MK Stalin's 70th birthday were underway on March 1, unverified WhatsApp videos of purported attacks on migrant workers in Tamil Nadu went viral, causing a huge political controversy. The DMK-led government and the Tamil Nadu police have repeatedly claimed that the videos being circulated are fake and have denied any such incidents.
However, the damage has been done. The videos have caused panic among the migrant workers, and impacted industries as many stayed away from work.
In the video in question, a man was seen verbally and physically harassing migrant workers in a crowded unreserved compartment of a moving train. The video showed the man questioning the migrants on what their mother tongue was. and then lashing out on them for stealing jobs of local Tamils. As soon as the video went viral, the Tamil Nadu police registered a case and have been on the lookout for the accused.
Meanwhile, the situation soon snowballed into a political controversy after Tamil Nadu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief Annamalai posted an official tweet, including the video, stating that the discrimination against migrant workers was a result of the DMK's anti-Hindi agitation. As this and other videos were being circulated, migrant workers across the state started panicking. Families of the migrants started calling worried about their safety. Many chose to stay away from work.
According to the Tamil Nadu Labour Department, the state is home to over 10 lakh migrant workers, a majority of whom are employed in the construction, manufacturing and textile sector. Better wages and employment opportunities attract migrants from states such Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, West Bengal and Odisha.
A 2016 survey commissioned by the government also revealed that the rise of real estate projects and the metro rail also led to a rise in the number of migrant workers. Chennai, Kancheepuram and Tirupur accounted for the maximum number of migrants.
However, in the recent past, anti-migrant sentiments or a sense of resentment against migrant workers has increased. Arasu (name changed), a local construction worker said, "In the last few years, wherever you go for daily wage work in Chennai, you see more North Indians than Tamilians. They have literally taken over all our jobs. We have been welcoming and friendly, but we do feel that it is unfair that there's not enough jobs for Tamilians in their own state."
In December last year, another video clip went viral which allegedly showed hundreds of migrant workers lined up outside the Chennai Central Station. The video was widely discussed on social media platforms, with locals responding that they are afraid they will lose their jobs to North Indians.
Meanwhile, the DMK has blamed the BJP for creating panic. DMK MP and lawyer RS Bharathi said, "This is totally fabricated by the BJP. The truth is that people who have come here from Bihar and other states have a very cordial relationship with the people of Tamil Nadu. This issue cropped up only after March 1, when the Chief Minister Stalin celebrated his birthday and invited opposition party leaders including Nitish Kumar.
“When things go smoothly, people try to create some problem. Tamil Nadu has a large number of migrants because the state is developed. People are coming here for better livelihood. People choose this over Delhi because they have a comfortable life here."
It was just recently on CM Stalin's birthday that several opposition leaders like Nitish Kumar, Farooq Abdullah, Mallikarjun Kharge, Tejaswi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav joined hands and pitched for a secular alliance to defeat the BJP.
However, Sumanth C Raman, a political analyst, feels that the DMK is also to blame for the anti-migrant sentiments that have been rising. He said, "The immediate provocation was because of the fake videos circulated. For that, the BJP affiliated social media handles will have to take responsibility for it. But the ground work for this has been laid by the sort of hate speeches that have been going on by the DMK and its affiliated outfits.
“It's good to say we oppose Hindi, but not Hindi speakers and all that. But the ground workers and lower cadre staff don't really understand this. There have been several hate speeches in the past where they have called migrants as pani puri sellers and other such names. One minister on record said that businesses must only be run by Tamilians. All these are contributory factors. The reason why people panic is because of all these talks by the DMK and NTK.
“Political parties have an ideology that they need to create an enemy to gain votes, saying that migrants are trying to take away jobs and all that. They get people to hate some group and say they would be with the Tamil people and support them. They don't understand that migrants are vital for the economy. This is just playing with the emotions of people and using that for political gains."
The controversy further escalated as the Bihar BJP, took up the matter in the Assembly. They accused the Nitish Kumar led government of not taking any action in the matter. The leader of opposition Vijay Kumar Sinha said after staging a walkout on Friday, “The Bihar government should bring back workers who are victims of vandalism in Tamil Nadu. Their dignity is being attacked; the state government should send a team and investigate the matter, otherwise we will protest inside and outside the Assembly.”
On Saturday, the Bihar government sent a four-member team to Tamil Nadu to look into the alleged attacks. Balamurugan, Rural Development Department Secretary, who was part of the team, told the media, “our team met with senior police officials in Tamil Nadu, The Chennai district collector, Bihar association members and labour department officers. We went to Tirupur on Saturday to see what action had been taken.
“We got feedback from workers from Bihar and asked if they have any problems. We even checked their mobiles with their permission to see what kind of messages they have received. We also met with migrants who have been here for more than 20 or 30 years, who have started their own businesses here.
“After this fake news was spread, there was a sense of panic among them. Parents of migrants have been calling as they were worried. But after the action taken by both governments, the panic has started subsiding."
Meanwhile, while migrant workers across the state have certainly felt fear after the recent developments, many claimed that they have never experienced any harassment by the locals. Jeet Halder, a migrant worker from West Bengal who works in the hospitality sector said, “I've been here for eight months and so far I've always felt welcome. The people here have been really nice. I don't know if these videos are true or not. If it is, I hope the people are taken into account. But my experience with the locals has been good so far. Everyone has been so helpful.
“There is a construction site near where I live and there are about 1,200 migrants in the area. They all said they have had no problems so far. The police came yesterday and told us that if we have any problems, we should call them and let them know. They assured us that they are here to protect us. I often had issues with getting salary on time. But I had local friends who have always stepped in to help me."
Saffaraudin, another migrant worker from Assam said, "I have been here for two years. I work as a car cleaner. I have never experienced any harassment so far. In fact, I can recall many instances where locals have helped me with money when I didn't have enough. I do feel that the locals are worried about their jobs, but these talks about attacks on migrants don't seem likely."
The issue has now become an insider-outsider debate. While Tamil Nadu has always prided itself in how welcoming it has been and how people from anywhere would feel at home here, the latest incidents have tainted that image. Although the government has sprung to action to assure migrants that they are safe, questions over the general anti-migrant sentiments remain.